They come in many forms. From sleek, polished chrome, tint glazed racehorses, and the scholastic's faded orange workhorses to the chain smoking, perpetually, terminally deceased deadhorses. From double-decker semi-cama coaches flaunting arachnoid mirrors, and double doored school buses, polished with a patina of vocation, to the double-troubled charabancs in a patch up of repairs. Buses, buses and yet more buses.
Memories of Lujan are twofold: one is the end of the Pampa and the start of a two hundred kilometre conurbation, the Federal Capital's outer skirt, the other is of buses. They and the collectivos, the mini-buses for the less than mini-visitor, were everywhere, all streaming in and out, running the autopistas, queuing up along Avenida. At the terminus they are parked ten deep, countless long in a dry sandy yard, engines rumbling, mixing up an opaque haze of fumes and dust, through which an indomitable sun is diluted down to an innocuous, benign vapour. The diversity of public transport might be wide and plural, but the 'raison d'etre' is singular: Religion, and the veneration of a nation's patron saint.
The early settlers were moving west, moving away from the coast and out on to the Pampa, when they encountered the innocent obstacle of the Rio Lujan. On attempting a crossing, the first cart foundered and was lost, the second fared little better. So being a pious people they mounted their religous reliquary, particularly a statue of the Virgin, on the third cart. This one managed to cross unscathed, and by the expedient of passing the statue back and forward, subsequent transports all attained the far bank in safety. That's one credit, one creation myth; another tells of a Portuguese setler in Tucuman, who in 1630, ordered an image of Mary the Virgen. Unsure of the style required, the carvers sent two renditions. The wagon bogged out on the banks of the Rio Lujan, and only managed a safe crossing when one of the statues was removed. Kind of obvious, standard practice in such circumstances. Foundered? Then lighten the load, empty the cart. The haulers then decided to jettison one of the figurines, possibly intending to return for it later and carried on their way west. This marvel was credited as miraculous. A prodigy that has grown into the city of Lujan. Of the two competing contentions, I prefer the first, but the ring of truth hangs around the second. Since then the Virgen de Lujan has been credited, attributed with curing ailments and eliminating epidemics, sending fogs to protect settlers from indios attacks, and promoted to the status of the nation's patron saint. Over five million pilgrims will visit the Basilica and the Icon each year. Hence the buses.
The closer we get to the capital, the busier the roads become, and conversely, our choice of quiet side routes diminishes. In Cordoba province and the west of Provincia de BsAs, we managed to patch together a series of less than linear routes that's kept us on asphalt, but deep in cereal and beef country, keeping clear of the dreaded 'all roads lead to Rome', lead to town scenario. Eventually our choices are being whittled away, narrowed down to three major highways; it's these or the purgatory of earth roads. They, depending upon the weather can vary from 'stuck in the mud' to a 'flounder in the dust'. Neither is pleasant, and there doesn't seem to be any half way point, going from a glutinous glaur to a smothering smog, in one short desiccating wind storm. Now add in the grain harvest of haulage and combines, and there's every reason for avoiding them. However, we have devised a cunning plan.
If we can avoid the main roads until Sunday morning, we would have a window of opportunity, a five hour slot to cover 50kms of potentially busy road. If we can get to Lujan before the basilica empties out, before the heavy transports start their week, before the city evacuates to the balneario, we could then reach a selection of city streets that offer a choice that's greater than one, the one Ruta Nacional 7.
Fast forward to midday. Up to a point the plan has worked. There's been no harvest traffic, no heavy haulage, but that has been amply replaced by the horse box going to the races, the family to the relatives, the collectivos to the church. With the latter, I'd made the erroneous, Protestant assumption that there would only be one Sunday morning service, and not the Catholic procession of masses. It's hard work, watching to the rear, waiting for the next truck that's unable to ease over, away from us, because he too is being over taken. Watching to the front, waiting for the next overpowered Euro import to pull onto our side of the road, flashing head lights, forcing us onto the verge, and into a soft tangle of grass that absorbs all our momentum instantly. We grumble and mump for a bit, until our efforts are thanked by passing milk tankers and petrol lorries; at least someone appreciates that we've made an effort to share the road. Thanks comes in another form when a laden cattle float passes. It's carting Hereford cows, whose anatomy combined with the height of the deck offer the perfect platfom and opportunity for spraying me with a trajectory of by-products. In many ways, we are only reacting to the fact that one: I now smell bovinelly fragrant, and two: we've been on empty, deserted roads for such a long time. It takes time to adjust back into city cycling.
When a commercial campground appears on the outskirts of Lujan, and we're encouraged by the presence of a 'whipper in', an aging gent with a flicking rag, flagging down potential customers. We pull in. It's either proximity to the capital or the influence of religous iconography, but the charge is double what has, up to now been standard. Maybe I'm being punished for a percieved degree of profanity; that, or there's a 'devotional duty', or a 'secularist's surcharge'. Further chastisement comes when we make the mistake of payment before inspection. You might have expected that after six months of experience, we might have learned. In our defence, I would like to explain that the site we saw from the road, the one with grass and water in the pool, was not the site we now found ourselves in. For that less than 'free-will offering' you might expect the sanitarios to be clean. It's what you alway think, or at least hope, half knowing that the opposite will prevail. The toilet; singular, the rest are blocked or flooding, would cause a petri dish to salivate at the prospect of reproductive super abundance, go forth and multiply. The shower is......well cold. Which, I suppose, helps to reduce the favourable conditions that would encourage and enhance the breeding grounds of bacilli and other micro-organisms. I'm quite happy to do 'cold', as cold is a relative term anyway when the ambient daytime temperature hasn't dropped below the high 20s. What comes out the tap is generally in the range of lukewarm to comfortable. But we've just been divested of more than the cost of a room up on the Chaco. Location, location, location. The rule is simple, or so it might seem. The closer your accommodation business is to a honey pot, the more you can charge and the less you need offer. The higher the price, the lower the service. What makes our situation so pertinent, the circumstances so stark, is that the previous two nights we were out in a real world, pitched with the fishermen and the plantsmen of the cereal towns. On both occasions the facilities were spotless, the pool filled, and the grass abundantly green.
Yet my whinge has less to do with a 'value for money' and more to do with the fact that the major part of our journey is over. Travels have a natural life expectancy, and ours is, slowly, naturally dying, finally losing its direction back in Ameghino with the estancia visit. The emotional and cerebral aspects are over, leaving just the physical and the symmetrical. We left the capital on bicycles and we want to arrive back in a similar fashion. It's the neatness, the completeness, the closing of the circle. The final challenge.
Set up home under some deep shade thrown by a cedar tree, beside a bridge that once carried the main road out from the capital and still transports the populace and the pilgrims into the town. A bridge with a blistered expansion joint that must make it one of the noisiest in the land, as horse carts saddled with tin, cattle floats loaded with cows and empty lorries hauling nothing but noise, clattering and banging their way across, all through the day and all through the night. Yet for every third vehicle that crosses, one will be a bus, and four have pulled into the camp ground. It's now that I understand the meaning of the entrance hoarding, an advertisement of "parilla, pileta, eventos, camping, abierto", steak house, empty pool, room hire, day-camp, open. We've chosen to lodge on an expensive picnic site, one that caters for those who have attended mass at the Basilica. A packed lunch at the concrete tables, a siesta under a tree and a queue for the toilet, all before they make the long journey home. For us it's an un-Argentine scene, yet, on reflection, explainable. They're sitting down to a home-prepared repast of crustless sandwich migas, mixte ensaladas and sugar infused postres, washed down with bottles of diluted Tang. There's no fire to tend, no to beef sear on the asado, ergo no meaningful place for the male. It's a world of women and children, all in their Sunday best of headscarves, long frocks and white shirts. Yet another, differing Argentine experience.
Later in the afternoon, as the crowds and the heat start to disperse, we too cross the rio, and head to the Basilica. The low evening light accentuates the colours of the newly cleaned limestone edifice, taking up the glow of the setting sun. Etching out with deep shadow the details in the carvings, the intricacies of the rose window, the particulars of the greater-than-life sized saints and the crouching, bedevilled gargoyles. It's a magnificent building, easily the most impressive that we've seen on these travels. Yet - there's always a 'yet' in Argentina - the boulevard that streches out before the basilica is polluted by parked cars, concert stages and a line of lighting standards that ruin what should be a classic structural view. One that could stand alongside others of their ilk, like the Taj Mahal, the White House or Trafalgar Square on a pigeon-free day. The plaza is proportioned, a balance of early 20th century cloistered arches partially concealing the vendors' barrows of ecclesiastical wares. Key fobs and fridge magnets, rosary beads and pendant crucifixes. Flutters of red ribbons, like the flags that adorn every roadside shrine, these ones for hitching to rear-view mirrors and tow hooks.
We move further into the square, away from the miasma of swirling dust from the bus park and the near constant stream of slow moving penitential cars, their captivated occupants held until they either escape the confused confines of the city or find a vacant parking spot. Moving into a pedestrian world, where picnicking family groups are scattered across the grass, sprawled around the redundant artillery pieces of the Malvinas memorial park, on to an esplanade of cobbles and crowd control barriers, of choripan fast-food and horoscopic vendors. Mercantile mongers and holymongers are lined out, a cordon of booths, a torc of guilt, through which you are seived, through which you need to break if you are to attain redemption and the steps of the Basilica. We stand to watch and gaze skywards at the twin spires imposing on the crowds below, on the square and its surround of coffee shops, hotels and resto bars, the pavement tables shrouded by awnings of uniform maroon, their business titles in a standardised script. But, like the 'yet', there's always one exception, and it's always the same one. Who carries more clout? The Church, the State or the soda monolith Coca Cola?
Whilst the building is the focal point, a testament to the wealth of donations, it's the people that are the fascination. I look to my left and there's a father intimately photographing his wife whilst she breastfeeds their child. To my right a teenaged daughter is directing her mother on how to photograph her glamour style, posing, pouting and posturing with religosity for a backcloth. dBehind me are queues rescripting the scriptures, waiting at the water fountains to fill the newly consumed wine and caffeine infused fizzy pop bottles; converting wine into Water. I'm approached by a leather-clad biker, who's off to ride south, down to Tierra del Fuego and has stopped to get a blessing on his trip. He encourages us to the same. Holy Water, Holy Milk, Wholly Vogue and Wholly Different. For one who was raised on the reticent wing of an inhibited, undemonstrative Kirk o' Scotland, this feels like a challenging disrespect to place, a sacrilege of faith, a profanity of belief. Yet it is we who are riding through someone else's normality. Too often we move through a place like a skimming stone, stotting across the surface of a town, causing minor ripples, a mild interference, that spreads out only to fade away just as quickly. Touching, then glancing off, only to bounce once more, but never penetrating below the skin, as we visit the bread shop and the fruit stall, the supermarket and the gas station. Places that had a history yesterday, and will have a future tomorrow, neither of which we know or will see. We are continually riding through in someone else's present tense.
I want to see more, but not through the shroud of mammon that encircles and smothers this structure. We resolve to come back in the quiet of the next morning.
Again the light is low, but now the air is clear and cool. A heavy dampness has settled across the grassy areas, a sheen of glazed silver that can't hide the detritus of picnic. The contents stripped and consumed, the foragers and devourers departed, the wrappings now sweepings of wind waste. A bent man with a switch of twigs laboriously sweeps the barren acreage of cobbles, gathering piles of ketchup spattered napkins and scripts of votive prayers. The early vendor carts have already pulled into place and are setting out their wares. The first visitors - their demeanor and timing says north European - are inspecting the brass reliquary, the saintly key fobs and the 'bless me papa' hats.
Discordant notes abound. Any public works, be they road asphalting, school construction or as in this case, stone cleaning, requires an obligatory bragging board. Its colour and message must be mandated in the constitution, so ubiquitous, consistent and pervasive that they are. All the effort will be credited to one person, to the office of La Presidencia, such an industrious lady; how she manages it all, I don't know. Coloured a patriotic blue and white, they're never smaller than motorway hoarding, and this one occupies the most prominent of positions, just where it can impose a less than subliminal message on every photograph taken of the Basilica. It is an election year, after all.
Not bred to, or nurtured by this faith, it would be easy and cheap to stand on the outside, to be voyeuristic, to mock and ridicule what appears to be a cult founded on a superstition. But I only have to look at my wrist to see the copper and leather band that's become a talisman for travelling, a fetish that so disturbed me when I thought it lost. Or The Navigator's 'Koru' pendant, her own bone carving of a Maori design, deemed by orthodox faiths to be pagan, one that symbolises 'new beginnings', to realise that it might be wise to remove the skelf from my own eye before deriding another's faith. Charms and amulets, vanities and superstitions to set alongside our much quoted, much thanked 'god of cyclists', who has come to our assistance on so many occassions. Is it luck, providence or a guiding hand? Today I'm not prepared to question. We might, if our planned route into the capital fails to deliver, have to resort to those buses, or the aid of our cycling deity.